A Week of Dylan at the UWS Beacon Theater
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might roll your eyes that I am squeezing Dylan in again. But I can't help it. The idea that the nonplussed Nobelist would take up a seven-night residency in my neighborhood gave me two full months of delicious anticipation. Over the weeks, I sprinkled in a couple of trips to The Public to see Conor McPherson's play "Girl from the North Country" to stave off the yearning. It satisfied and distracted me enough to get me to Thanksgiving and then just one week remained 'til I walked down our main drag to the Beacon to take in Dylan's fifth of seven Upper West Side shows.
Before I tell you about the concert -- and like Donald Fagen, Ringo Starr, and the irredeemable jerk who ruined the most beautiful ballad of the show last night before he was ejected by Beacon muscle, perhaps you also made your way to the Beacon and will tell me in the comments how you experienced this round -- I need to say a little something about this Homer from Hibbing, notorious for thin wild mercury ways.
One: he never, ever, ever gives you what you think you are going to get or even what (you think) you want. Let me give you an analogy that comes from a past experience. Say you were cooking with Bob. And you both decided that you would get home early, lay out all the ingredients and then when he got home you would cook together. And say you had in mind using what was familiar and on hand. So, you saw reason to make an omelet and set out eggs, which you pre-beat, some onions, tomatoes, perhaps some cheese. When he comes home, you think to you yourself, the two of you will jump into action, utterly in sync, and whip that omelet up. Man gets home. Sees the path you are leading him down. Feels a tad fenced in. And before you know it, he's added bonito flakes, shredded seaweed and toasted sesame seeds to your eggs and is serving it up katsu-style over rice. Your head spins.
I am not sure if you follow my digression. But Bob will not be defined. Nor will he go where you want or expect. Best to come to your seat and see what the Master whips up. And just be thankful he's still cookin'.
Two: his Nobel was for literature, but it could just as easily have been for the art of imitation. He is the ne plus ultra of mimicry. His muse comes in many forms, and one is to incarnate others. Think Johnny Cash and country Bob's Nashville Skyline Voice. Think of his blues. His gospel. His Rolling Stones-like Rock and Roll. Think of his recent crooning and complete embodiment of Sinatra. When Bob goes on an impersonating jag, he goes deep and he goes long.
So, on Thursday night, I was open to the unexpected. Last year this time, he was Bing-Bob, Sinatra-Bob. But my friends, after five full LPs of ol' Blue Eyes covers, the crooner fever seems to have broken.
Instead we got a concept show of Bob deconstructing Bob. Bob on Bob, if you will.
Beacon-Bob has delivered this whole week long a resounding reply to Bruce Springsteen's Broadway gig. Where Bruce was stripped down, solo, Bob was still kitted out with the best band in the business. But make no mistake: this show was to Springsteen's like a response to a call.
He crafted it to be fully immersive. From the curtain that rose (see what I mean about Bruce on Bway?) telling us we were in a show, to the uniform-clad boys in the band in that bath of warm incandescent lighting, to the sumptuous set with his gleaming Oscar for "Wonder Boys" and an unexplained classical bust of a woman on prominent display, to the shiny baby grand that he would Jerry-Lee-Lewis into submission: Dylan's point this week -- and presumably on this leg of the Never Ending Tour -- was to create an ambiance and a full-on 'concept spectacle.' And once the physical part of the stage was set, he and his boys turned to the metaphysics of this concept piece: the playing, and the smithing of the old into the new.
Throughout the concert, I kept imagining how each new rendition of so many deeply familiar songs had come to their novel melodies and arrangements. Was it Bob solo in his studio reworking them? Did he consult a producer? Did the band work it all out together? My best guess it the former. What's true is that he always does this change up, switching in new melodies and making old songs hard to recognize until the chorus betrays the novelty. Akin to the way a jazz musician riffs and keeps it interesting, Bob's method can hardly be faulted; he's been out on the road for 50 years. Clearly, performing scratches an itch for him. But strictly on his terms. And he refuses to let his art bore or grind him down.
When Paul Simon retired from touring recently, he said he'd been out there so long he felt like he was a cover band for his own music, phoning in "You Can Call Me Al" and deriving no pleasure from being a performance monkey, feeling the audience's demand to deliver each song precisely as recorded to no longer be a bearable endeavor.
At the Beacon this week, on our boulevard, Dylan delivered transformative versions of his songs, not stripped down like Bruce Springsteen's. But tightly conceived to pack in the ambiance he wanted to stagecraft: spiked with American 1950s music, Jerry Lee Lewis was definitely in the house. Tinged with some rocking Warren Zevon. There was even a trace of Daniel Lanois, though Dylan would fight that thought.
To understand, you have to listen for yourself. I am putting a link to a rough recording of Tuesday night's show at the bottom of this post (if you are receiving this in an email, you'll need to click on the title of the post at top to go to the blog page and stream it from there). But if you feel it's a slog to go through the whole concert or if you are not a Dylanista but are a bit curious, perhaps skipping to these three selections will make it easier on you, and yes, I get that this is an acquired taste, the rough audience recording and the gruff singing. So if it's not for you, it's not for you.
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right 1:09:35
Gotta Serve Somebody 1:32:09
Blowin' In The Wind 1:42:44
Keep in mind that listening to the guerilla concert recording won't come close to the full experience Dylan conceived for this residency.
So, better yet try to get in! You have exactly ONE more chance in this limited UWS engagement because on Saturday night after the last gig, he pushes on for Philly where he's the inaugural act for "The Met Philadelphia" -- Oscar Hammerstein's eponymous grandfather's 110-year-old opera house.
In our nation's first capital, I can't think of a better fanfare to herald the Met's new life than a performance by our national treasure declaring his independence. As indeed he does every time he goes on stage.
That's Dylan. "Always on the outside of whatever side there was. When they asked him why it had to be that way, 'Well,' he answered, 'just because.'"